It has been eight years since Cate Shortland released her critically acclaimed debut feature, Somersault. Eight years in which the world has been turned on its head, with Europe – 16,000 kilometres away from the director’s Sydney home – plunged into political and economic turmoil that in many regards recalls the crisis that followed World War II. Europe is also the setting for her follow-up film, Lore. Produced by Porchlight Films’ Liz Watts (Little Fish, Animal Kingdom), Lore follows the fortunes of five German siblings, led by newcomer Saskia Rosendahl in the title role, as they journey from the home and the values they shared with their Nazi parents, captured by the Allies, to their grandmother’s home 800 kilometres away. It is on that journey that the pubescent Lore meets a Jewish boy who helps the children, inspiring in the girl a repulsion that is only equalled by her attraction to him. This raises questions of identity and prejudice, belief and belonging, grief and guilt. Based on the 2001 Booker Prize–nominated novel The Dark Room by Rachel Seiffert, Lore has already won plaudits after it premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, in which it was one of only two Australian films in competition. (The other, also produced by Watts and a literary adaptation with a European theme, was Dead Europe, directed by Shortland’s husband, Tony Krawitz.) A German-language film, Lore is produced by German, Australian and British companies.
Lore emerged out of the personal connection between producer and director (Watts and Shortland have been friends for many years), and particularly through the attachment that both women felt to the story – to its historical resonances, and to its oblique reflection on contemporary Australian life. ‘I was really interested in this story because it is the story of perpetrators and children of perpetrators,’ Watts explains.
Germany, as a nation, has been very much affected [by the Holocaust and its role in World War II] and they are constantly re-examining their history. In Australia, we don’t do that. We don’t examine our history here in a cultural or artistic sense – examine ourselves as children of colonisers, for instance. I have always been interested in history but, coming from an Australian sensibility, that is what resonated with us and with me.
Though there was coincidence in the timing of Lore and Dead Europe, not least in bringing a husband and wife to two such similarly influenced (and yet quite distinct) projects, there was method in it too – these films were driven, at least in part, by a desire to respond to change and crisis on the other side of the globe. Given the historical significance of European immigration to Australia, it is not surprising that generations of Australians continue to link their heritage to the ‘old countries’. For filmmakers like Watts and Shortland, it is not only a question of heritage, though. In an increasingly small and connected world, says Watts, they see their role as commentators on a global culture of which we all are a part.
I am interested in working in an international sense as well as in an Australian sense, and I feel Australia has to be working at being part of an international landscape in both cultural and economic ways. I think art is created in that way, looking out across international borders. Certainly what is happening in Europe in economic and political terms is very interesting. I think Europe does affect us and the world does affect us. But equally we [Porchlight Films] have made The Home Song Stories about [writer and director] Tony Ayres’ mother and we have a strong link with Asia in Australia, which is also very strong and relevant.
Lore cost four million euros to make and took almost six years to bring to the screen. Written in what Cate Shortland describes as ‘beautiful fragments’, the novel from which the film was adapted and the story at its heart closely matched her intimate style of filmmaking. Her unflinching eye draws the audience close – uncomfortably so at times – to the characters, the setting, their story and its significance to contemporary life. ‘If you look at her [Seiffert’s] work, it is made up of all these great details, so it doesn’t feel as though she is looking at history from an outside perspective,’ says Shortland. It was this immediacy that the director says allowed her to engage with such confronting and controversial material: a coming-of-age story, set in the aftermath of the Holocaust and Hitler’s Germany and told from the perspective of a perpetrator’s child.
It is very intimate and you feel as though you are a part of it at a human level. I hadn’t ever read anything from this perspective, told in that humanist way before. We always look through eyes of judgement of the consequences of these people’s actions, and to look at it as it is unfolding and [to look at] what they felt – the confusion – was very real to me.
The Lore of the film’s title is a teenage girl (in the book she is younger, and her age is never entirely clear in the film). Shortland was drawn to the ‘ambiguity’ of the character in terms of both her sexuality and her political ideas. Having wanted to avoid making another coming-of-age film in the wake of Somersault, the character of Lore allowed questions to be asked that could not be posed by a fully formed, adult protagonist. And that is what swayed it in the end: the ability to explore moral and historical questions by walking in the shoes of a girl whose parents joined the Nazi Party in 1933, and who grew up in a house in which she was indoctrinated into a value system that led to her ‘seeing some people as human beings and a whole lot of other people as the other’. The film was meticulously researched. And it does not shrink, while never descending to gratuity, from showing any of the period’s grim truth – rape, starvation, death. Put simply, the audience sees what Lore sees. It is not a film that is watched so much as one that is experienced. That is the power of the film on screen and, for Shortland, a reflection of the emotionally intense research process that went into making it:
It was really, really difficult. I actually cried a lot when I was in Germany doing the research. It was so overwhelming. I was so angry when I was in Germany, but the people who were helping me [Shortland interviewed and spoke to many people who had lived, on both sides, through the Holocaust and the war] were so beautiful that it just allowed me to [realise] that the two things could happen in the culture at the same time, in the same [way] that they do here or in South Africa, where you have these horrendous abuses of power that spill over into genocide and at the same time have a caring, kind, nature-loving, cultured group of people – and that they can live alongside each other. We had to be truthful to that.
Having opted to tell the story through Lore’s eyes, the team behind the film were careful that this would not become an ‘apologist’ take, as Watts explains:
Most people know a lot about that period of history, but in simplistic terms, and we were fascinated by the complexity of this very human story. But we wanted to be careful because we didn’t want to offend the generations who had to deal with the Holocaust and its aftermath. It is not an apologist film. But it is looking at someone slowly awakening to something that they have, almost (but not quite) innocently, seen and been a part of, and [at] their coming to question it … But you cannot just redeem her as being a child of the system that she is not totally familiar with. She does have to question that but it is going to be a long, hard road.
Both Shortland and Watts credit a ‘fantastic German script editor’ with helping to shape later drafts to imbue the film’s narrative complexity with due emotional power. Watts also praises the ‘creative alignment’ of the wider team – including German producers Karsten Stöter (Russian Ark) and Benny Drechsel (A Mysterious World), and Briton Paul Welsh (Skeletons),as well as co-writer Robin Mukherjee – for navigating the various different financing systems that went into a complex co-production while staying true to the integrity of the story and delivering a beautiful and challenging film. ‘I think ultimately the creative heads of department on the film were all really fantastic and came to the story with such enthusiasm and energy,’ she says. ‘You get the right people on it and it works.’
Also crucial was Adam Arkapaw, the cinematographer who with Shortland developed the detailed, intimate look that the story required. They put on screen a landscape setting that seeks, according to Watts, to provide an ironic resonance with the cultish Nazi fixation on the outdoors. Composer Max Richter’s score, recorded in London, manages somehow to combine both intimacy and epic scale and, as such, also contributes significantly to the feel of the finished film. Both Watts and Shortland applaud the work of the actors, and in particular the children at the centre of the narrative. It is yet to be seen whether Lore will provide the career springboard for Saskia Rosendahl that Somersault did for Abbie Cornish. But Watts concedes that her initial impulse not to cast Rosendahl – because she was too pretty – would have been to the detriment of the film.
Lore’s observing, questioning role within a story that takes her name as its title seems to reflect the filmmakers’ attitude to the society around them. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Shortland names as one of her inspirations for the project the Austrian filmmaker and screenwriter Michael Haneke, known for instilling his bleak and unrelenting films with probing social and political commentary. In his essay ‘Film as Catharsis’, Haneke said his films were ‘an appeal for the cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus’. Based on these criteria, one suspects that Lore would be a film of which he would approve. As Lore (and indeed Dead Europe) is shown in cinemas on either side of the globe, it is possible that this investigation of Europe’s past and its continuing significance in 21st-century life will resonate even more clearly because it has been viewed from a distance, seen through the engaged but critical eyes of filmmakers from the other side of the world. Through Lore, the past lives on, re-examined. In Europe’s troubled terrain, of course – but in Australia too.